A world without bees is one that is hard to imagine and, given Albert Einstein’s pithy summary of the prospects without these busy little chaps, if it should ever happen we will not have very long to contemplate such a world: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Actually it seems as if Albert was not the source of that particular observation. By all accounts it first appeared in 1994 and was dreamed up by L’Union Nationale de l’Apiculture Française to bolster its calls for tariff protection against cheap honey from China. There: I have managed to get a swipe in at French protectionism and the implied horrors of the Common Agricultural Policy without really trying!
Actually the picture is not as bad as that. The problem has thus far only been seen in honey bees, of which there are twelve species worldwide. There are another 30,00 odd species of bees which function pretty well as pollinators and, of course, bees are not the only pollinators. Thus far it is honey-bees which have been experiencing this phenomenon.
Nonetheless, the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is one which has set some really serious alarm bells ringing and ought to have got the attention of those charged with responsibility for such things. Alas, as we shall see, DEFRA (funny how these recidivists keep on coming back for more!) has again been found wanting in the business of taking the countryside seriously.
The phenomenon really came significantly into view last year in the USA with a large number of reports of hives being found empty or seriously depleted and no obvious sign of what had happened to the former denizens. Something like 25% of the USA’s beehives have been affected since last November. Such a substantial loss has deeply alarmed beekeepers and scientists.
Commercial bee-keeping in the USA is very different from here. It is a huge industry in which hives are routinely moved around the country to take advantage of crops which come into season for pollination at different times all round the USA. Thus a commercial beekeeper may load up a large HGV with a very substantial number of hives and go on the road for a large part of the year with his bees. One such is Dave Hackenburg, a former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, who moves about the country with some or all of his 3,000 hives in a fleet of trucks. This week it may be north for apples in Pennsylvania apple orchards or Maine blueberries, next week cranberries in Massachusetts and then out west for California almonds.
It is amongst this group that the phenomenon of CCD has been most marked. In November 2006 Mr. Hackenburg checked on a group of 400 hives that had been to Florida in October: 360 were quite empty. Such discoveries have been replicated across the land.A number of causes have been mooted for this crisis. The very nature of this peregrinatory lifestyle for bees has been suggested as a cause but this is been doubted because CCD has happened outwith this group. GM crops have been blamed but it has been pointed out that CCD has been happening away from areas where GM crops predominate.
Attention has lighted on a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. These appeared in the mid 1990s after their development by Bayer and were soon banned in France after research pointed to their role in a massive number of honey-bee deaths in that country. Based on a synthetic form of nicotine which is safe for humans, they are designed to kill aphids and other pests by attacking their nervous systems. Their use is widespread in the USA tends to rule this cause out too.
Other causes, for example the varroa mite, Israeli acute paralysis virus, even mobile phones have been put forward as the cause. As yet no definitive answer is at hand. Many believe that a combination of two or more of these factors could be the underlying cause.
I have given here very much of a thumbnail sketch of the problem and I do not pretend to be an expert by any means. I do, however, adore good honey: who can resist, for example, the dark perfume of a fine heather honey? I am not alone in liking honey: the UK’s industry is worth a staggering £1 billion a year.
And there is the rub. Given the problems in recent years caused by the varroa mite which has decimated one-third of all British Honey bees since the early 1990s and for which a cure has yet to be found and given the onset of this particularly threatening problem it might be thought that substantial sums indeed are being deployed by DEFRA into research into these matters.
It seems, however, that DEFRA is bent on being incompetent at everything it touches. Not content with its utter near-criminal negligence over foot and mouth, both in 2007 and 2001, its ludicrous idea to get us all to drink UHT milk which may result in half the UK’s dairy industry being forced out of business, they are doing their level best to sink the business of apiculture in the UK too.
For, instead of pumping more money into research on bees and apiculture, DEFRA have actually cut the amount of money allocated to such research: The total budget for research into bee health in this country is now less than £200,000 a year, and DEFRA has recently laid off some of Britain’s leading bee scientists and closed down the bee health research centre at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire. This minuscule figure to back up an industry valued at £1 billion beggars belief.
No wonder that DEFRA is one of the most hated of Ministries in the land.